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Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist.

Right Angle: Media & Modi Sarkar: Observer or partisan?

Published Oct 30, 2015, 7:55 am IST
Updated Mar 27, 2019, 7:36 am IST
Narendra Modi. (Photo: PTI)
 Narendra Modi. (Photo: PTI)

Last Friday, in case some of you didn’t notice, the executive board of the Sahitya Akademi, an institution that has been very much in the news, met and passed a resolution upholding India’s “spirit of plurality” and calling on “governments at the Centre and in the states to take immediate action to ensure the security of writers now and in the future”. The resolution hardly attracted any media attention. Whatever little reportage appeared was reserved for a small silent march by some writers and activists, many of whom felt that this was a case of too little and too late.

Whatever view we may have of the Sahitya Akademi, it is significant that 20 of the 24 members of the executive board attended the meeting, endorsed the resolution and even reposed faith in the Akademi’s president Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari who had been earlier attacked by those who returned their awards for his alleged cravenness. The Akademi also urged the writers who had returned their awards protesting against the murder of Sahitya Akademi award winner M.M. Kalburgi to reconsider their decision — and some of them apparently have done so. The board meeting did not include any reference to the Dadri beef lynching in its resolution, presumably because it felt that the handling or mishandling of such an event was outside the remit of a writers’ body.


The board meeting was important in one respect: it demonstrated that the pain of the writers over the Kalburgi murder spilled over to the Sahitya Akademi precisely because the body was perceived to be unmindful of an issue that concerned them as a collective, professional body. Once the Akademi had taken note of the strong feelings, convened a meeting of the executive board and passed a resolution that expressed its sorrow, anger and collective worry at the targeting of a literary figure, the protest automatically subsided. The writers were also relieved that nothing had happened to curb the functional autonomy of the Sahitya Akademi.


Yet, what was interesting is the very limited media coverage of the October 23 meeting. Considering the lavish publicity given to the 40 or so writers, who either returned their awards or resigned from positions in the Sahitya Akademi, it was expected that the culmination of the protests would have been widely reported. That, alas, was not the case. The relative media indifference to the low-key executive board meeting prompts an unfortunate conclusion: more than being an observer, the media had converted itself into a partisan player. The lack of prominence accorded to the meeting indicated a deep sense of media disappointment that the controversy was finally over. The focus now was on the proverbial fire the next time.


This indictment of the over-politicisation of the media, particularly the English-language publications and channels, isn’t likely to go down too well in a profession that has a lofty self-image. That India has a vibrant media isn’t in any doubt: it is one of the hallmarks of an argumentative democracy. Yet, over the years, and particularly since the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in May 2014, the media has moved from being an instrument of documentation to becoming a political player.

Locating itself in the political arena has always been a feature of the Indian media. Many newspapers and magazines were intimately linked to the freedom struggle and often served as factional mouthpieces of one or the other political tendency. The “professional” media — operating solely for commercial considerations — isn’t a fully evolved animal in the Indian context. This is as true now as it was when the Congress Party’s stranglehold over power was relatively unchallenged. Initially, the government’s control was exercised through advertisements and the control over newsprint. However, even after the ability of the state to determine the media’s balance sheet became less pronounced, the drift away from political partisanship didn’t quite happen. The Indian media saw itself as a player in the wider democratic game, and revelled in its ability (sometimes real, mostly imaginary) to make or break governments and politicians.


In recent years, two additional dimensions were added to the media’s arsenal. First, thanks to a more contested political environment and the presence of weak governments, the media became a factor in the decision-making process of the government. This was particularly marked during the term of Manmohan Singh when ministers and bureaucrats routinely “leaked” confidential information to the media — not necessarily to enhance transparency, but to stymie all decisions that were not to their liking. Consequently, journalists developed an exaggerated sense of their own importance and the role they were playing in public life.


Part of the reason why the Modi government curbed the drift to a chaotic openness stemmed from the fear that premature and motivated media exposure would delay decisions and put an end to uninhibited internal discussions in the government. The net result was that the number of media “exclusives” shrunk dramatically and the enhanced distance between the executive and the media also led to a curtailment of some of the media’s existing privileges — such as being a part of the Prime Minister’s delegation overseas. This simmering discontent at being treated in a non-preferential way was bound to trigger a backlash — and it has.


The media, it is said, is marked by a dog-eats-dog ethos. But this fierce professional competitiveness — a very admirable streak — coexists, quite paradoxically, with group think. In an earlier era, “progressive” ideas ruled the roost. The prevailing fashion today is uber liberalism, borrowed heavily from Western cosmopolitanism. It is this approach that puts the media at loggerheads with the Modi government. The media would insist it is guided by strict professionalism. Others would doubtless argue that this apparent professionalism is ideologically guided. Herein lies the complication.

The writer is a senior journalist